Facebook's latest guidelines have a new section on "dangerous organizations." And Twitter has been intensifying its crackdown on jihadist activists on its site. But what do these measures achieve?
Extremist groups have become increasingly media savvy. In fact, most journalists are likely to hear about what the "Islamic State" (IS) is up to via social media, where the organization has been increasingly posting videos and images informing the public about its activities.
"ISIS [IS] uses Twitter and other major platforms like YouTube because that is where the biggest audiences are found," says J.M. Berger, the co-author of a study on the "Islamic State" on Twitter recently published by the Brookings Institution.
And the strategy is probably an effective one: about 1.4 billion people use Facebook at least once a month.
"It is harder to recruit people from an underground platform, like the old jihadist message boards, which were password protected and often required a referral to join," says Berger. "So [the jihadists] will likely continue to see the biggest and best platforms, even if they are under pressure."
And now, following increasing pressure from some governments, social media networks like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are upping their efforts to clamp down on jihadist activity on their platforms.
Facebook announced new guidelines on Monday that help provide clarity about what material is allowed on the social network. Groups engaged in terrorist activities or organized crime aren't allowed on Facebook, according to the "dangerous organizations" section in its community standards.
The crackdown on jihadist activity on social media may send people underground and result in closed (protected) networks
Does banning jihadists reduce their activity?
An increase in the number of new accounts supporting ISIS on Twitter during the second half of 2014 reflected Twitter’s crackdown on jihadists, according to Berger's recent study.
"We review all reported content against our rules, which prohibit unlawful use and direct, specific threats of violence against others," a Twitter spokesperson told DW in a written statement.
Last week, there were reports that ISIS supporters are creating their own social network, Khelafabook. The Twitter account associated with that site was taken down by the social network. At least 1,000 accounts supporting ISIS were suspended between September and December 2014, according to the Brookings Institution study.
However, it is difficult to say whether the attempts by Facebook and Twitter to crack down on jihadist activity will have a major impact. Whereas account suspensions limit the reach and scope of ISIS activities on social media, "they do not, at the current level of implementation, eliminate those activities, and cannot be expected to do this," according to Bergen's study.
Governments and social media companies should work together
On top of this, there is a lack of transparency concerning how social networks go about suspending accounts. Twitter's spokesperson in Germany declined to provide more information on whether it works with the government when vetting accounts for suspension.
This is why Berger would like to see social media companies and governments working together.
"Although discussions of this issue often frame government intervention as an infringement on free speech, in reality, social media companies currently regulate speech on their platforms without oversight or disclosures of how suspensions are applied," he writes in the study.